In my line of work, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about policies that could be a lot better if they were redirected or revised somewhat, even a lot. But the gas price story is unusual in the near unanimity with which public figures and commentators are competing to find a way to make things worse instead of better. I recall few debates in which so nearly everyone isn’t just mistaken, but has the sign wrong, looking for ways to move in precisely the wrong direction.
Aside from the occasional glimmer, like John Tierney’s commendable take in his April 29 column (he proposes a classic Pigovian tax on gasoline returned to “everyone” in a way that doesn’t tangle the scheme up with a zillion other good purposes (for example, per capita checks, or deposit to the Social Security trust fund)), the ideas in play are the most disheartening collection of wrongheaded and ill-informed goofiness I can recall…well, maybe abstinence-only sex education is up there.
I don’t know where to start with this stuff. Hydrogen is not a fuel, and neither is electricity. There’s no mine for either of them; if people start plugging in cars into the wall, power plants of all kinds will just rev up faster and longer, and the marginal electricity is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s only somewhat less greenhousy than oil, though a lot less than coal. These cars have to haul an enormous stack of heavy batteries around, and half the energy that goes into the power plant is lost in the transmission and generation system anyway. “Clean coal” doesn’t mean “coal that doesn’t cause global warming,” it means less pollution of every other kind: coal, clean or not, is the worst greenhouse fuel until we figure out how to capture all the stack gas and put it somewhere (this is called carbon sequestration, and it’s a very long-term, daunting, technological road at this point).
As a piece of social policy, one has to wonder about the wisdom of slapping a big tax on the only people who are providing any of this oil we want so badly. One doesn’t even have to wonder about the whole concept of all the schemes to make oil less expensive; did the demand curve for petroleum suddenly tilt the other way while we weren’t looking? One more time, what’s the logic of subsidizing domestic production and exploration: is there some prize for being the first country to use up its petroleum?
When I did wind tunnel research on how tall buildings affect the street-level winds around them, the architects always asked whether some sort of canopy over the door would help, and we had to explain that the wind is very big, and so is the building, so anything that would change the way the wind blows also has to be very big. The oil system is very big, and poking at it with tiny instruments like deposits to the strategic oil reserve, or rushing to slurp out the two years’ worth of oil imports in ANWR, are not going to make any important difference. Actually, no bullet is silver, even though we desperately want to think wind power, or biofuels, or nuclear, or turning off the lights more carefully, will “solve” the energy crisis. Lots of these will be incrementally helpful, but none of them is as big as the oil flow we’ve become habituated to, and every one has a really sobering social price of one kind or another.
Petroleum is not like solar energy. Fossil fuels are a stock, not a flow, of sunlight that was stored up over millions of years when no-one needed to drive kids to the soccer game. We’ve had a nice century drawing down that bank account, and it’s over. Maybe, as Rick says, not right away, but soon. “Soon” in policy earthquake terms is a few decades. There’s lots of coal, but if we start really playing that game with current technology (that is, burning it into CO2 that goes into the air), a lot if it will be used up (for example) keeping Europeans warm in a subarctic climate when the Gulf Stream stops. Of course the beach will much easier to drive to as it moves inland.
What will make a difference is to use a lot less, and using less oil means real behavioral change on a broad, retail level. It absolutely doesn’t mean making gasoline cheaper! We’re talking about things like living in smaller houses, close enough together to get people out on their feet and bicycles, and into trains and trams. Of course this has all sorts of quality-of-life payoffs in my view, but it’s a hard sell to a society that treats “get in my big car alone, drive where I’m going at 60 mph, and park free when I get there” as some sort of basic moral right. Still, I cannot understand a family that would rather have a house and a big yard that Mom and Dad don’t play with their kids in because they’re on the road commuting three hours a day, than an apartment with a playground nearby that the family can actually occupy and enjoy each other in…
We should be talking about paying a lot of taxes to pay for things like transit and community swimming pools where we can enjoy our neighbors, instead of the thousands of backyard pools that have no-one in them almost all the time, and community soccer fields instead of the ridiculous little patches of green that are useless once the kids are school age. We should be talking about having less stuff, and less house that needs to be filled up with it, and more shopping for it locally, on our feet, with a little wheely shopping cart instead of an SUV. What could possibly make up for having less stuff, though? Well, how about listening to more music and making more of it ourselves? And dinner with friends who come on the bus and don’t have to find a parking place is a pretty low-impact, high-quality life experience…
We’re not talking about those things, though; we’re talking (praying, actually) about making it not so, please. Our politics have a long, toxic tradition of candidates’ and voters’ mutual infantilization. The politicians treat an election, or an office, as the worst thing one can lose, and promise to fix everything with a trick that won’t require any actual work by us; we vote for people who tell us fairy tales that would excuse us from any heavy lifting if they were true, and excuse us from confronting downers and grownup responsibilities if we pretend to believe. This game is being played at a really frenzied level around gas prices, and the mix of ignorance and plain mendacity both parties are wallowing in is–this is really amazing–neck and neck with the immigration performance in the theater next door.